Tips on Applying for Your First Nursing Job

Written By: Dawn Papandrea 

Getting your RN license has been one of your greatest achievements. Now it’s time to enter the nursing profession. Getting started might be a bit overwhelming at first since there are so many career avenues to explore – but that’s a good thing! Being an RN opens a lot of career doors for you, and once you start putting some job experience on your resume, the possibilities are limitless.

But you have to start somewhere. Here’s a gameplan for finding, applying for, and landing your first nursing job.

Finding the right job for you

Of course you know that you want to work as a nurse, but there are a number of different types of nursing jobs out there. Is it your preference to work in a hospital setting? Would you prefer caring for the elderly in a nursing home? Did you hear about an open position with a local health care facility? Perhaps your dream job is to be a school nurse? Do you yearn for the adventure that comes with being a travel nurse?

See open travel nursing opportunities on the #1 job board for nurses.

These are just a few of the questions to ask yourself as you begin your job search. If you’re open to all of the above, you’ll have more options from which to choose, of course. Here are some places where employment opportunities may be available:

  • Area hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Nursing homes, residential care providers, or rehabilitation centers
  • Health insurance providers
  • Travel nursing agencies
  • Home health care agencies
  • Local government agencies 

Overcoming lack of experience 

As you begin your search, you may notice that many positions require several years of experience.  You may be wondering how to gain this experience.  The career center at your nursing school may partner with local hospitals to hire new graduates so make sure you check with them for opportunities.  You may also want to look at internships or job-shadowing programs.  Even if you feel overqualified for these positions, it's a great way to network and show potential employers what a great worker you are.

Another option available to nurses without much experience are temporary, on-call positions. Because on-call or per-diem nurses are needed due to staff shortage, you may find they require less experience and may allow you to work in the specialty or location you really want to be in. See open per-diem nursing positions now.

Searching for the right job openings

Once you have an idea of the type of position you want and where you want to work, you can start looking for specific positions. Many career experts advise new nurses to conduct targeted job searches through job boards specific to your area of expertise.  You can start by checking out the available positions here, on the nation's largest nursing job board.   If there is a particular hospital you're interested in, you may want to look on their site to see if they have any openings.

No matter where you look, the key is to plug in relevant search criteria (and broaden or refine accordingly), and then carefully read job descriptions to find ones that are a potential match for you. Here are some of the criteria to consider before moving forward and applying:

The qualifications

It’s a no-brainer that you’ll have to be licensed by your state, but read carefully to see if there are other requirements for the job. For instance, it might be physically demanding, which could pose a challenge for you. Or, some jobs might want candidates that have prior experience. This doesn’t have to be a deal breaker in all cases, but be sure you’re not trying to vie for an advanced position.

The logistics

Location and work schedule are two things that may or may not matter to you depending on your situation. Naturally, the more open you are to working nights, weekends, or 12-hour shifts, the more likely it is that you can find work in a hospital. However, there are plenty of 9-5 nursing jobs out there, and others that let you set your own hours. As far as where the job is located, that should be a consideration if you’ll have to factor in a long or expensive commute.

The career potential

If your ultimate goal is to work in hospital administration, then you should try to begin building up your hospital experience. Perhaps your want to one day work as a labor and delivery nurse. If so, you might consider a job in an obstetrician’s office to get your career going. All nursing experience will help you in some way, but the point is, you don’t have to accept the first offer you get. Aim for the jobs that will provide the best stepping stones for your intended career path.

Marketing Yourself

Of course, you’ve probably heard that conventional wisdom that says most people don’t get hired after applying to a job posting. In other words, you don’t want to really solely on that method. One great source of job leads may come from your own network of friends and family. You might also tap into your former nursing school connections and alumni office to inquire about career leads. The point is that you should actively put yourself out there. You might just strike up a conversation with a neighbor and find out that his sister is a long-time nurse who would be willing to share advice with you.

Hitting Send on the Application

Once you’ve identified a job that you’d like to have, it’s time to get your application going. The key elements you’ll need are a strong resume and a cover letter. Your resume should tout your credentials, license, skills, and relevant work experience, whereas your cover letter allows you to go a bit more in-depth as to why you’re a good candidate for the position.

The key to standing out from among your fellow applicants is to customize your resume and cover letter for the specific positions to which you’re applying. In other words, scan the job qualifications and tweak your master resume and letter so that you make a connection between the employer’s needs and what you can offer. You’d be surprised at how few people do this, and therefore end up sending an application that isn’t relevant.

Some things to keep in mind regarding your resume:

      • If sending electronically, ease up on any fancy fonts or layouts (you can save that version for physical printouts that you hand prospective employers in person).
      • Incorporate relevant keywords (the job description will give you a hint as to what the employer thinks is important), so that your resume will survive any applicant software filtering.

Click here for more in-depth tips on creating an effective RN resume.

Following up with prospective employers

After you send off your application, it’s likely that you’ll have to wait at least a few days for a response. It’s hard, but resist the urge to follow up for at least one or two weeks. At that point, you can begin reaching out with a courteous follow-up email asking when you might expect to get a response. Your next resort might be to call, but give email a try first. After 3-4 follow ups, it’s probably safe to say that you can cross that potential job off your list, and focus on other opportunities.

Prepping for the interview

If you get to this point, congratulations! You’ve made it past the first round of recruiting, and have been invited in for an interview. Many employers these days may start with a pre-screening phone interview just to make sure the basics are covered (that you are in fact licensed, that you understand what the position entails, etc.). This is so you don’t waste each other’s time by going too far into the interview process if there isn’t a fit.

Before your in-person interview, you should try to think through how you’ll answer basic job interview questions like:

      • What are your career goals?
      • Why did you become a nurse?
      • What are our strengths/weaknesses?
      • Describe an experience that you had or a challenge you overcame at another job that prepared you for this job.

Ultimately, you want to be able to describe what makes you a good person for the job, how your nursing education and experiences have prepared you, and what you hope to learn from the people you’ll be working with.

The encouraging thing about finding your first nursing job is that the health care industry, in general, is robust. Therefore, skilled RNs are in demand. If you approach your job search strategically using the steps above, you’ll be making your first-job rounds in no time.

Want more tips on advancing your career? Read networking tips or how to get a higher salary

Dawn Papandrea is a Staten Island, NY-based freelance writer who specializes in personal finance, parenting, and lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in Family Circle, WomansDay.com, Parents, CreditCards.com, and more.

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